Reading Between the Lines Is Not A Thing

*Warning: I’m talking about one of my biggest pet peeves- this may get ranty*

Hi all! So I’m gonna start by laying all my cards on the table. In my last post I admitted to committing the cardinal reading sin of just assuming a character was gay. While this is a somewhat popular theory around the book, I didn’t bother to back up my point, cos I know that while I was reading this was something that I just felt rather than based on any textual logic. Admittedly we all do this from time to time- and as long as we accept that these are fanfic-y assumptions we have made and not actual facts, we can all go along with our lives quite swimmingly.

just keep swimming.gif

The problem, for me, arises when people present what is actually a very flimsy opinion as fact. I cannot tell you how many times someone has said “well I just think so-and-so was secretly in love with so-and-so” and when I ask for evidence of this they just say “read between the lines!”

No, just no. That is not how analysis works. I’m gonna come right out and say this: there is no such thing as reading between the lines. I mean if you step back and think about it, what is actually in the blank space between the lines, except maybe a few scrawled notes we may have made? (yes I’m guilty of writing in books- it’s not sacrilege if you’ve ever been an English Lit student!) As self-referential as we may like to be, it is hardly good academic practice to say: “well I think so-and-so was in love with so-and-so- because that’s what I wrote in my notes!” Good analysis actually requires going back to the source material and showing that this is the case.

Remember what your primary school teacher said about how, when you construct an argument, “you can say anything as long as you can back it up”. Well- we need to go back to that- with an emphasis on that last part! Because at some point, when you make a claim, someone will say “prove it”.

More than that, we need to remember that sometimes the evidence is weighted in the other direction and an interpretation can be wrong. Because sometimes, someone can show evidence to the contrary that fits the story better. And also, to be absolutely clear, the absence of evidence is not evidence! (No matter how hard someone tries to convince me that, say, Mr Rochester is a zombie, I’m guessing that I will remain unconvinced). It’s obviously fine to have parallel convictions about what a book means, but sometimes opinions contradict each other and- this may come as a shock to some people- only one person is right.

And that’s a good thing- that’s the whole purpose of debate! We are actually trying to reach some sort of conclusion! When someone says: “I don’t agree with that interpretation, where’s the evidence for that?” it’s ridiculous to just throw up your hands and say “read between the lines!” Because that is not an argument. And if you say that, don’t expect me to take you seriously.

Okay- phew- glad to get that off my chest! What do you think? Are you open to more vague interpretations or are you more finicky about these things like me? And do you have any reading pet peeves that make your blood boil?

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71 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines Is Not A Thing

  1. thesarahdoughty says:

    See, with writing, the key thing is ‘show don’t tell’. If you had that inclination, there was something in the text that led you to believe it’s possible the character is gay. Perhaps it’s true, but you can’t read between the lines and say it’s fact this person is gay or straight. There’s no such thing in fiction, unless the writer is leaving gaping holes in the plot.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. vickigoodwin says:

    I agree with you. I get annoyed with characters that assume something negative, and never move beyond thinking it. Yet they hold the other person accountable for their own paranoia. It tends to get on my nerves when it is the main theme running through a book. Speak up! But I continue on reading, mumbling to myself about the lack of communication.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hilary @ SongsWroteMyStory says:

    People telling you to reading between the lines is why I nearly failed university English. My profs were big believers in subtext and reading into things that weren’t there. I think it’s silly. If there’s no evidence that your statement is true, it’s an opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Bookmark Chronicles says:

    I agree with you personally which is weird because in English classes we were always told to “find the deeper meaning” and I was always like “no the author didn’t say that so why are you telling me that’s what it means?” Or maybe I was just really bad at reading comprehension lol

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lila says:

    THANK YOU! i saw someone on twitter the other day *literally* say AND I QUOTE, “if an author does not want us o read subtext, then they shouldn’t write subtext” and i got *so* angry! in most books, what you see is what you get–there is no between the lines or subtext unless the author specifically says otherwise! so don’t read into something and build it up as a fact then get angry at the author when they say it doesn’t exist. even when i’ve taken english classes, all of my teachers have been pretty big components of hard evidence to back up your claim.

    Like

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      You’re welcome!! Ahh that must’ve been annoying. People come up with all kinds of nonsense that just isn’t there- people do it all the time and it drives me nuts! Sometimes the author/artist has to turn around and say “where did you get that?!”- bit off topic, but recently I heard a singer defending their song years after it was criticised (for nothing in my opinion) and their defence was very measured and just debunked the whole unfounded criticism. That’s the problem with reading too much into “subtext”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Esther says:

    Such an interesting topic! There are things open for interpretation and anyone can throw around their guesses, but there’s no right or wrong on these if there’s something to back them up, as you said. But when people start dissecting a work to find something that’s it’s not there, it’s pretty annoying. For me, people who ‘read between the lines’ translates to people putting words that aren’t there, imagining things for their own personal agenda and preferences. I don’t trust those assumptions at all!

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you! Yes exactly- I totally think everything is open to interpretation and sometimes multiple interpretations can be correct (my favourite example of this is Frankenstein) but making stuff up without backing it up does not count as a legit interpretation! And yes- I hate when people make things and start putting in things that aren’t there! Me neither!!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Zezee says:

    Hmm, I think we’ll always interpret things different and come to different truths in the text. Unless the author confirms, I see it all as interpretation and “reading between the lines” because sometimes the conclusions we end up with are gathered from assumptions we enter into what we’ve read and that’s a major part of reading between the lines.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Of course- I totally get what you mean about different interpretations- and multiple interpretations can often be correct (Frankenstein is the perfect example of that) That’s really not what I’m railing against at all. What bothers me is when people make baseless claims without evidence and then when questioned about it they just say “read between the lines”- it’s a lazy non-argument. Of course, as you said, everything is just assumption at the end of the day- but there’s a huge difference between reading subtext/ finding meaning beneath the surface and making stuff up without evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Zezee says:

        Ooh. I see what you mean now. Sometimes I think people use that excuse “read between the lines” because they don’t know how to explain what led to the conclusions they drew or because they heard someone else say the same thing and just use that phrase to avoid explaining.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. kimmie.gg says:

    I agree with some of what you’re saying, but some “reading between the lines” especially in poems and the likes are necessary. I am a strong believer that any assumption should be backed by good solid evidence though, and when people use “reading between the lines” as an excuse for a conspiracy theory they may have, I tend to grow wary. Although interpreting work is important and is a vital aspect in reading, everything should always be backed by evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Of course- I’m all for interpretation and finding meaning beneath the surface- what I’m really railing against is people saying things without evidence. As you said- people use it to make stuff up and create conspiracy theories. Yes, precisely!

      Like

  9. Marie @ drizzleandhurricanebooks says:

    This was such an interesting post, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about this! I have to say, sometimes even if things are left for interpretation, it always annoyed me how, in class, I was supposed to guess these kind of stuff where they weren’t obvious, AT ALL, and if I didn’t, well I was just plain wrong. I hated that!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Donna says:

    English Lit student problem : not enough space for your notes on a book’s page!
    What do you mean, Mr. Rochester is not a zombie??? Haven’t you heard about the sequel? He’s going to join The Walking Dead’s cast.

    I completely agree with you. I make a point of backing the arguments I use in my reviews with the right material proving my point. “Read between the lines” is such an easy answer for “I’m right, shut up, you have no imagination!”. To me, it has no value at all. I was always frustrated when teachers gave us “room for interpretation” stuff, because my brain won’t make up its own version of what’s happening or not!

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ahh yes!! Couldn’t agree more- at some point I’m gonna share one of my more (ahem) decorated books- just to show the damage!
      hahaha I’m actually watching wayyy too much Walking Dead atm! It’s so good- but somehow don’t see Mr Rochester joining the cast any time soon.
      Ahhh yes!!! That’s exactly what I meant! Interpretations all very well and good- but interpretation doesn’t mean just making things up! As you said- there needs to be evidence. I particularly didn’t like it when teachers encouraged people to make things up (nothing good ever came out of forcing people to do, say, a Freudian reading of something where Psychological aspects were irrelevant)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Donna says:

        I’m too scared to watch The Walking Dead xD
        I think teachers do that in the hope to keep students busy and get more time for their booze, haha. I’ve heard so much bullshit about interpretations of interpretations of things that were only hypothesis!

        Liked by 1 person

        • theorangutanlibrarian says:

          haha well I always say House cured me of my squeamishness- now I barely even blink at Walking Dead (okay- I’ll admit to blinking at it- more than once 😉 ) hahaha true- but funnily enough talking nonsense isn’t the way to get people to buckle down and study! (at least not in my experience… 😉 ) haha yes! Me too!!

          Liked by 1 person

  11. daleydowning says:

    Things like this are the reason I decided not to major in English Lit (and believe me, it was a strong contender for a long time). Unless the author flat out says, “Yes, so-and-so is gay/an alien/a ferret trapped in an accountant’s body – you got it exactly right!”, then we’ll never know for sure. Some authors want it to be an unanswered question. But the purpose of that is often to debate moral/social issues, rather than tie your brain in knots creating a sub-plot that even they never intended.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird” comes to mind right away – people have read FAR too much into what is already (and honestly) a great discussion on race and discrimination, that era in the Southern U.S., and what it was like to grow up then in that class structure. We don’t need to determine that intense racism ran rampant, or incest, or extreme prejudice against people who were different or didn’t conform, based on the examples in one small town. It would’ve been part of a much bigger problem, going back to an entire, widespread culture that had deceived and misled people for centuries. Scout even says at a few different points in the narration that she thinks most of the people she knows are good people, but they’ve always lived this way and they’re not sure how to change. So let’s just take that at face value and enjoy the story, folks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      haha I do agree about subplots. I do enjoy interpretation as much as the next english lit grad- but I think people do take it too far. But more than anything I can’t stand when people don’t use evidence :/ that’s just making stuff up!
      As I said, I’m perfectly happy to read more into the story- I mean what you were saying about Scout counts as interpretation- difference is it’s not totally unfounded interpretation- it’s bang on the money! 🙂

      Like

      • daleydowning says:

        Yeah, it’s just good analysis to realize that a narrator’s hinting at something, or that a comment a character makes is meant to indicate there’s more there – on purpose by the author. It’s another entirely to – as you said – come up with something out of left field.

        Liked by 1 person

        • theorangutanlibrarian says:

          Yes- exactly- I completely agree!! I find a lot of people in the profession of analysing literature are under so much pressure to come up with “something new”that they just make up nonsense! (such a shame they can’t be like the classicists and just say everything has already been said before)

          Liked by 1 person

  12. MyBookJacket says:

    I. Need. Evidence. To. Back. Things. Up. Grrr. It annoys me when people say “well it’s obvious” and I ask how and the dreaded “read between the lines” pops up. Sometimes they say “subtext darling”. I almost imagine a pompous hipster sucking on a sugar when they say that. Totally agree with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Read Diverse Books says:

    Hah, I can tell you are passionate about this.

    I TRY not too assume things that are obviously not backed up by text evidence. The exceptions are things I do for my own personal amusement, like assuming a character is gay if it’s kind of hinted at, but never explicitly denied. Hah, it’s just me projecting and I’m very aware I am doing 😛
    For almost everything else, I try to adhere to the text because I don’t write fanfic and I’m not scouting for potential fanfic plots and alternate histories/endings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      haha I know what you mean- I’m totally fine with people assuming things- as I said in the first paragraph. Headcannon or even fanfic are absolutely fine by me! Everyone projects a little!
      But if I get in a debate with someone and they’re trying to make a serious point (not just- I wish/like to think that character is gay) then I expect people to bring all the evidence to the party! I’ve had people say the most ludicrous things (Darcy never loved Elizabeth Bennett, Voldemort wasn’t all bad) and then just say “read between the lines!” when I ask why they think that (haha is it totally obvious I’m passionate about this lol?)

      Like

  14. Emily | RoseRead says:

    PREACH! Where’s that John Green quote…”Not every answer is equally correct in literature.” Or something like that….

    Now I feel guilty for not backing up my opinions more in my book review posts with textual evidence a la lit papers. I yelled that at my students enough, and don’t do it myself, lol. Though certainly blog context is different than academic context, but I digress. It’s hard to take people seriously when they don’t back things up!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ahh thanks!!
      haha trust me- I don’t do that either- it’s more about getting into a debate. I completely agree- it’s a different context. Besides- most of reviewing is saying whether you liked it or not and not interpreting it. If I do try to interpret something, then I try to back it up (except in my last post when I was feeling reallly lazy- as I said total sin!) 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Kristina Steiner says:

    I agree. Reading between the lines is actually someone’s personal opinion because the reader has certain connotations to every word and you see what you want to see. Unless there is an actual word or an action, there is no proof. You can think it but cannot claim it to be a fact.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Melanie Noell Bernard says:

    Ah! As a scientist, I fully back you up on this. If all science experiments were conducted by ‘reading between the lines’ with no actual, factual evidence, we’d be screwed! Life as we know it wouldn’t exist because we’d believe anything and everything. No. An argument needs actual evidence to back it up. If it doesn’t have it, then the argument is invalid and trust me, arguments (or hypotheses) are invalid ALL the time in science. Why should the same not exist in literature?

    Liked by 1 person

      • Melanie Noell Bernard says:

        Likely because of how it’s taught. I mean, looking back on my English literature education in particular, it was always one-sided. The teacher would say that X is the interpretation of the book and there was no room for any other opinion. And they would give their evidence, but my problem with that was we were reading SHAKESPEARE and CHAUCER. I mean, who really knows what was going through their heads when they wrote this stuff. In that sense, I think it could be proven to be different from the teacher’s POV, but they don’t teach us how to back-up opinions, much less formulate them appropriately.

        Liked by 1 person

        • theorangutanlibrarian says:

          Yes that’s true a lot of it comes down to bad teaching- there are a huge number of issues with teaching English lit. I found at uni a lot of them had an agenda to push, which makes them come up with a lot of nonsense. While I was at uni, a lot of professors would encourage us to give a particular reading of a book (feminist, marxist, freudian) regardless of whether they have any relevance or not- I’m all for using these theories when they’re relevant- but trust me, trying to do a Marxist reading of Mansfield Park is nigh on impossible. They were encouraging us to read more into books than was actually there. On top of that, they also had fixed opinions- so if you disagreed with a professor, you’d get a lower mark. Let’s say the professor was a Marxist- which is surprisingly not as unusual as it should be- and I make a disparaging comment about that- well then my grade would suffer- I had to learn how to read a tutor’s opinions and match my essays to that (I actually had an essay moderated by a professor who I’d quoted once and- no surprises- they marked it up. It’s really messed up) haha as you can probably tell I can rant against how English lit is taught *all day*

          Liked by 1 person

          • Melanie Noell Bernard says:

            Not gonna lie a lot of the Marxist, Freudian references went a bit over my head (as I’m a science person), but I get your meaning. The same thing could be said of many scientists as well. Their way or the highway and whatever you do is wrong. Or they steal your research when it goes right. It’s the same all around, but at least it doesn’t happen in high school. English is screwed up all the way down the ladder and I could pull up a soapbox next to you and rant with you in the streets about the improper teaching of English lit (I’ve even been tempted to have a discussion post on it). However, I’m not sure any of it will change. There is no real way to regulate the teachers in class. You can tell them what books to teach, but not much beyond that. :/

            Liked by 1 person

            • theorangutanlibrarian says:

              haha that’s cool! Basically- they’re a bit obsessed with outdated ideas that have been proved wrong- it’s weird (it’s especially true of Freudian theory- which Psychologists are constantly stating is outdated but English Lit profs refer to like it’s their prophet!) hahaha I’d love to stand on a soapbox and rant about this!! I don’t really want to regulate them too much- but it would be good if there were a better standard of teachers in the world! (it’s such a shame that it’s an undervalued profession, because that stops the best and the brightest from pursuing it)

              Liked by 1 person

  17. Creatyvebooks says:

    All I’m going to say is Show don’t tell. A lot of authors seem to do this and I’m like nope. Also I hate that whole sub-text bs. Sometimes I’m lazy and I don’t want to “read between the lines”. Present your work in a way where I get it. Or else I’m going to assume and it might be wrong.

    Either way, great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. sarinalangerwriter says:

    I completely agree! It’s perfectly fine to think that a character is gay (to use your own example) but it shouldn’t be stated as a fact in, say, reviews, when there’s no proof. I think it can be stated as a personal opinion, though, as long as it’s made clear that it’s the reviewers own reading of the situation or character. I know that a lot of us can get carried away when we read and might think that we know the characters better than they know themselves, but if there’s no proof then it shouldn’t be stated as fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!! Yes that’s exactly what I meant!!! Definitely- I’m fine with people saying things like that- but when you’re trying to convince other people of a theory then there needs to be evidence to back it up. Yes definitely!

      Like

  19. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    Great discussion topic! I’m also not a fan of someone inferring such and such happened to this person or in this particular case, that someone is gay. I try not to assume things when I’m reading, but when the author doesn’t give you enough information, you start to make up your own scenarios of what you think happened or what this character is like… I don’t like when an author leaves out details such as the character’s appearance, which is unusually common, or the fact they are gay. Then there’s also the argument that when the author does create a gay character and you know that they’re gay for a fact, then I find myself being annoyed when the author inserts this into the book like it adds depth to the story when all they did was add what they thought would make their book more diverse. I read a book recently where the boy was gay and he was presented as a lovesick kid, chasing around boys he was in love with. This added nothing to his character and made him look silly. I think I’m ranting. Haha! That part of that book really annoyed me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yeah definitely! I don’t usually like to make assumptions- and I have to admit I was a little generous with the truth here- cos the truth is there’s a lot in the book that suggests the character is gay, it’s a popular theory which has been interpreted in films and the author himself is historically known to have had gay affairs- the truth is I was actually really lazy about going into all this and using evidence to back up my point! So instead, I just went “well it’s an assumption I made”, because to have stated an interpretation as fact without evidence is just something I would never do. Ahh yes- I do get what you mean about that- that is irritating! I don’t like lazy story telling in any way- so that would annoy me too!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Keira says:

    I think that a better term for reading between the lines is inference. You infer things about the book BASED ON THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN SAID. That, of course, is the biggest point. If you can’t back something up, if you can’t prove it, there’s a chance that you’re wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Nicola Alter says:

    My English teacher in high school was very good at coming up with odd “between the lines” interpretations of things – we used to joke that she could find biblical and sexual references in ANY piece of writing. That said, she was very good at backing her ‘readings’ with evidence and seemed to enjoy offering multiple different options just to demonstrate to us that it could be done… though some of them still seemed pretty far fetched. I kinda liked it though, because occasionally she came up with some creative perspectives on Shakespearean plays that appealed to me more than the obvious/straightforward ones… although I was pretty sure Shakespeare never intended for those interpretations!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hahahaha I know the type! But most teachers know how to back it up, like you said. I’m definitely open to creative, but well supported arguments in anything- I just don’t like it when people don’t back things up and make up nonsense just to say something different :/ haha well, the way people get round that is by saying the “author is dead” so who cares what they intended- I seesaw about that a lot- sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t- I reckon the answer’s somewhere in the middle like most things 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Codie says:

    Agree 100% When people just make up nonsense about characters or plots or future developments and say, “end of story,” without evidence of their claim, my face is just: -__- It really bothers me. So, I know how you feel. Totally random, is there really a – completely unfounded – theory that Mr. Rochester is a zombie? Wow….

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Wow! This has been a very popular post, and I am not surprised. I love your points– and this is why I love to discuss books. I like to present my evidence and then let other people present their evidence and prove me wrong. That said, I’m certain that I have made assumptions and posted them before. When an assumption is “obvious” to me, I someone forget it’s an assumption. Oops!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!! Ah yes one hundred percent- I feel the same way. And also I think it’s totally fine to have and make assumptions- I think the important thing is to remember they’re assumptions. I know that I did this with Brideshead Revisited, cos it’s a book that’s become seen as having a gay relationship, so while I was reading I made this assumption- it was only when I wrote the review that I realised I hadn’t gathered any evidence for this, so I just pointed that out in my review and didn’t worry about it too much. Hehe sorry that was a really long way of saying it’s fine to have assumptions, it just doesn’t work for making an analysis or argument

      Like

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